Africa Five: Changing of the guard for the 2018 World Cup
There’s a lot of debate about which is the toughest confederation from which to qualify for the World Cup.
Conmebol – South America – is generally considered to be the most competitive. Even with four and a half spots in the 2018 World Cup – Peru is playing New Zealand in a playoff – Copa America champion Chile was unable to qualify for the World Cup.
CAF – Africa – is certainly the most unforgiving. With only six games and one team through from each group, teams have no margin for error.
Four of the five African finalists from 2014 won’t be playing in the 2018 finals. Out are familiar U.S. foe Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Algeria. In are are Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Senegal. The only holdover will be Nigeria.
Ghana’s string of three straight appearances in the finals ended when it finished third in Group E. Ivory Coast missed out on a fourth consecutive appearance at the World Cup when it lost at home to Morocco, 2-0, on Saturday.
Reigning African champion Cameroon finished third in Nigeria’s group while Algeria, which took eventual champion Germany to overtime in the 2014 World Cup round of 16, was last.
Here’s a quick look at Africa’s five World Cup 2018 representatives:
Tunisia. The Eagles of Carthage tied Nigeria for the best record in the final round of qualifying — four wins and two ties — to reach the finals for the fifth time but first time in 12 years.
They only needed a tie against Libya at home to edge out the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, and they drew, 0-0, before 55,000 fans in Rades.
Coach Nabil Maaloul insisted his players can play better. “The most important thing is to qualify,” he said. “There was huge pressure on the players. Their real level is not that.”
Player to watch: Goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi, 33, is the senior member of the Eagles of Carthage and one of five Tunisians up for the 2017 CAF Player of the Year award.
Nigeria. The Super Eagles were the first African team to clinch a berth in the finals, where they will play for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments.
They have the deepest team in Africa, led by captain John Obi Mikel. The future of the team looks bright. For the final qualifier against Algeria, the Super Eagles started four 21-year-olds.
Player to watch: Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho, 21, once trained with the Columbus Crew, has scored seven goals for Nigeria, including goals in qualifying wins over Zambia and Cameroon.
Morocco. The Lions of Atlas needed only a draw at Ivory Coast on Saturday to clinch but won, 2-0, thanks to goals from defenders Nabil Dirar and Medhi Benatia five minutes apart in the first half.
The result sent Morocco to the World Cup finals for the first time since 1998. Its French coach, Herve Renard, had led Ivory Coast to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations title and Zambia to the 2012 African championship but he has never previously led a team to the World Cup finals.
Player to watch: Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech (seven goals in 13 appearances) turned down a chance to play for his native Netherlands — which didn’t qualify — to join Morocco.
Senegal. The Lions of Teranga will play in the finals for just the second time. Coach Aliou Cisse was on the team in 2002 when Senegal stunned defending champion France, 1-0, in the tournament opener and reached the quarterfinals.
Senegal got a break when FIFA ordered its qualifier against South Africa — a 2-1 loss — replayed after the referee, Joseph Lamptey of Ghana, awarded a penalty for a nonexistent handball. (Lamptey was banned for life.) In Friday’s replay, Senegal won, 2-0, and clinched first place with a game to spare.
Player to watch: Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, who was involved in both Senegalese goals against South Africa, follows in the footsteps of 2002 star El Hadji Diouf, who also played for the Reds.
Egypt. Four years ago, Bob Bradley led the Pharaohs to the final round of African qualifying, a two-leg playoff series against Ghana.
This time, Argentine Hector Cuper led Egypt to the finals for the first time since 1990 when it comfortably won its group with a four-point edge on Uganda and six-point advantage over Ghana.
Player to watch: Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah led all African players in qualifying with five goals.